I’ve been attending Open House weekend for a couple of years now so I’ve seen the most of the modernist estates that usually form part of the programme. I was therefore pleased to be able to visit Vanbrugh Park Estate this year, which for some reason has never come up on my itinerary.
Vanbrugh Park Estate was built in 1962 and designed by the renowned architects Chamberlin, Powell & Bon responsible for the better known and more celebrated Barbican and Golden Lane estates. Set on seven acres of land bordering Greenwich Park, Vanbrugh Park Estate comprises a mixture of dwelling types: an eight-storey tower block containing 64 flats, low-rise terraced houses, and maisonettes arranged over garages.
Like many parts of London which now contain modernist architecture built in the 1960s, the area, mostly renowned for large period villas, was bombed during the Second World War and was in need of new housing. As such, careful consideration was taken by the architects when building the new housing to respect the surrounding areas, including the blind-wall terraces that were intended to reflect Greenwich Park’s own wall using similar brickwork. In addition, simple but functional materials (such as the breeze block facades) were used to save on costs so that more could be spent on landscaping communal areas, giving the estate a more utilitarian than luxurious feel – more Golden Lane than Barbican, if you will.
Two properties were open when I visited. The first was one of the maisonettes over the garage blocks. The apartment was reached via a communal walkway and comprised a conservatory-like entrance area, kitchen, living/dining area, bathroom and two bedrooms. The owners were clearly architecture and design enthusiasts and had restored a number of original features in the apartment including the wood panelling, black vinyl floor tiles and fireplace in the centre of the living area.
The second property was one of the low-rise terraced houses. Set over three floors, the entrance of the house opened onto a semi-open plan living, dining and kitchen area with stairs down to a bedroom and the garden and stairs up to two further bedrooms and a bathroom. There wasn’t much left in the way of original features in this house (the central fireplace had been removed and that bannister is definitely not original) but it was deceptively spacious and still architecturally interesting.
This year’s Open House weekend included access to Walters Way, a close of 13 self-built houses on a sloping, tree filled site (not unlike Great Brownings) in South East London.
Each house on the close was built in the 1980s using a method developed by Walter Segal, the celebrated Swiss architect. This method involved the use of a modular, timber-frame system reminiscent of 19th-century American houses or traditional Japanese architecture.
Although the houses were all built using the same method of construction, the houses were designed with flexibility and individuality in mind. Unlike Great Brownings, where homeowners are required to ensure that their house looks the same as all of the others on the estate, I was struck by the way in which all of the houses on Walter’s Way were unique in both style and configuration (most of having been adapted and extended since they were built).
We were invited to have a nose around two of the houses on the estate, which timber walls and flooring aside, were quite different owing to changes made by the owners to the layout and sun deck/garden patio areas outside.
The owners of one of the houses (self-build house 1 in the photos) had extended with lean to lobby which was self-built and a more substantial two-storey extension which wasn’t – whilst more straightforward than a regular build, self building using the Segal method is apparently not without its challenges.
One of the key considerations was the retention of supporting posts from the original build – here, they made for a design feature across the middle of the living area. The owners of self-build house 1 had further plans to modify and extend their house – according to them, self-build houses are never quite finished.
Originally the Cambridge home of curator, art collector and sometime artist Jim Ede and his wife Helen, Kettle’s Yard House serves as the University of Cambridge’s art gallery, housing the couple’s spectacular collection of early 20th-century art.
Having moved to Cambridge in 1956, the couple converted four slim cottages (reportedly slum dwellings scheduled for demolition) into one rather idiosyncratic house.
Thanks to Jim’s job as a curator at the Tate Gallery, the couple were able to fill their home with artworks by famous names like Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and Joan Mirò (mostly acquired before these artists reached the pinnacle of their success), which they carefully and lovingly arranged around the house. Jim was meticulous about this, believing that the positioning of an artwork relative to its surroundings was almost as important as the artwork itself and that each room of the house should be regarded as a collective work of art in its own right.
It was also part of Jim’s philosophy that art should be shared in a relaxed, informal environment and so he would hold ‘open house’ tours, inviting students from the University of Cambridge over for afternoon tea to enjoy the art and even to borrow paintings from his collection to hang in their rooms during term-time.
Concerned that his beloved house would be broken up upon his death, Jim gave the house and collection to the University of Cambridge in 1966 on the condition that they would fund various improvements, including the construction of a large new wing in the late 1960s to host live music events and to preserve the space as the couple left it upon their departure in 1973.
Jim’s art arranging skills and all-round good taste were still very much in evidence when I joined a recent tour of the house, which began in the original older wing of the house.
This part of the house consisted of the three original cottages knocked into one and contained the couples’ bedrooms and a reception room on both the upper and lower levels. Whilst the couple had upgraded the original slum cottages, installing more luxurious fixtures and fittings to replace the original features (the mid century-style spiral staircase and large windows would not have been found in the original slum dwellings, for example), these rooms were low ceilinged and modest in size. This made for an unusually homely and intimate setting for displaying significant pieces of early 20th century paintings and sculpture.
The original wing of the house was connected to the newer wing by a bridge link/small conservatory on the upper floor. Crossing the bridge, you went from the slightly claustrophobic spaces of the original cottages to jaw dropping, full-on, double height 1960s modernism. This provided more of a gallery-like setting for the rest of the collection and the downstairs area was also large enough to be used for live music events as requested by Jim when he gave the house to the University of Cambridge.
Designed by the architect Jonathan Ellis-Miller for his own occupation, this single-storey modernist house was actually built in the late 1980s despite resembling the American work of architects like Mies Van Der Rohe, Charles and Ray Eames and Craig Ellwood from the 1940s and 50s.
The house was constructed using mostly steel and glass with a galvanised steel structural roof, the front elevation composed entirely of sliding doors opening out onto the Cambridgeshire Fens and offering views across agricultural land.
The house was bought by its current owner as a holiday home in 2010 (reportedly in a bit of a state) and restored to its former glory. Keen for others to enjoy this slice of Californian Modernism in the Cambridgeshire Fens (the owner’s words rather than mine), the owner currently rents out the house for holiday lets which is how we ended up there for a couple of days this October.
Arriving at the house, I was struck by the simplicity of the layout. Entered from the carport beside the house, the house had no hallway or corridor and consisted of a long, open-plan living space divided by a striking chimney breast and open fire place, which spanned the length of the house and a kitchen, wet room and bathroom and ensuite accessed off the living area. Relatively compact in size at 66 square metres, the combination of the layout and glass panels made it feel a lot larger.
Staying in the house was comfortable – the original electric underfloor heating was still in operation, allowing for a pleasantly natural heat to emanate through the wood block flooring and the kitchen and bathrooms had been renovated recently enough for them not to feel like relics of another time (which can be the case when staying in period houses like this one). The views across the expanse of the flat East Anglian fens out of the sliding glass wall, which stretched from one end of the house to the other, were also pretty spectacular.
On the downside, the flat corrugated steel roof meant that there was an unholy racket whenever it rained. The minimal decor, whilst mostly in keeping with the house, was a little pedestrian (a proper sideboard and some decent period artwork would have complemented the Days Forum leather sofas – surely still the best thing Habitat has ever produced – and elevated the living area, for instance). Overall, I found that the finish was a little tired in places (busted blinds, slightly grimy exterior, chipped tiles), probably due to the house being used repeatedly as a holiday rental.
In terms of location, Prickwillow was pretty remote with zero amenities nearby (the rather sleepy Ely was a 10 minute taxi ride away) though for architecture enthusiasts, the house made for a worthy destination in of itself.
I’ve now been running this blog long enough to see properties that I viewed as a potential buyer a few years ago being put back onto the market by the people who ended up buying said properties.
This is the very nice but expensive flat in Frobisher Court that I went to see in 2016, looking very much the same as when I saw it albeit with different furniture (though it appears that sellers left behind all of the built-in units in 2016).
It has the larger three-bedroom floorplan found in these Austin Vernon and Partners-designed blocks (the standard, more commonly found type has two bedrooms without the bay window in the lounge) though this particular flat only has two bedrooms – the previous owners knocked into the third bedroom to make the lounge bigger.
It’s on the market at £575,000, which might be a bit less than the price it was marketed at four years ago.
20 February 2016
Frobisher Court, Forest Hill SE23
Apartment block forming part of Dulwich Wood Park estate; winner of Civic Trust Award 1964
Architect: Austin Vernon & Partners
Year built: 1959
I’ve wanted to buy one of these Austin Vernon & Partners flats in the Dulwich Wood Estate ever since I went to see one in Raleigh Court last year. Even though that particular example was a bit decrepit with rubbish views into other people’s flats on the estate, the combination of the pleasant, almost wooded setting, the mid century communal areas and the spacious, open layout of the flat led me to keep an eye out for other flats on the estate coming onto the market.
One year down the line, I’ve seen six other examples of the same flat, all of which have been pretty much identical in layout but have varied dramatically in condition from perfection to complete wreckage. Having had bids rejected on two of the better ones and a sale fall through on another (I’m still reeling from the sheer injustice of that experience), I decided to view a 7th floor flat in Frobisher Court that had just come on the market.
Although Frobisher Court looked almost identical to all of the other blocks congregated around Gipsy Hill I’d been to see, it was actually situated a couple of miles north from the rest in the slightly more affluent Forest Hill. The facade and communal areas looked familiar with the slightly oppressive patterned sixties tiling and juddering lift present and correct but this particular building seemed particularly well kept with not a spot of peeling paint or limp indoor plant to be found.
The flat itself, which was situated at the very top of the building, was pretty stunning. It had the same open plan layout of all of the others I’d seen but appeared to have an additional bay window with great, far-reaching views of the surrounding area.
The current owners had made bold but period-appropriate design choices, including some great built-in furniture (I loved the bespoke hallway unit) and coloured feature walls. Unlike all of the other flats of this type I’d seen, the solid wood flooring continued beyond the main living areas into the bedrooms, which somehow made the flat seem more spacious.
The only downside to this particular flat, which I loved and could completely picture myself living in, was the asking price: it was an absolutely ridiculous £195,000 more expensive than the last one of these flats I viewed. I appreciate that you sometimes need to pay a premium for a well-presented property but in my opinion, no amount of nice built-in furniture or pretty views is worth an additional £195,000. The last time I checked, this flat was still on the market. If the owner were willing to reduce the price to something more sensible, I may well make an offer.
Though we ended up buying another house, the keenly-priced mid century end-of-terrace that we looked at in 2017 in the Norman Starrett-designed Hyndewood estate in Forest Hill was one of my favourites from our property search (see entry from 2017 below).
Three years on, another house in the same estate came onto the market briefly via The Modern House and a very stylish example it was too.
While it didn’t have the extension on the side like the one we saw in 2017 and therefore didn’t have the second reception room and bathroom (this one must have been mid-terrace), it was in much better condition, having been preserved and sympathetically renovated. At £635k, however, it was quite a bit more expensive than the one we saw in 2017.
With its understated palette of white, cork and natural wood (the top floor bedroom still had its original ply-panelled vaulted ceiling), it had an unmistakably mid-century modern aesthetic that looked up-to-date rather than a pastiche. I particularly liked the black 1960s cabinetry and glass serving hatch in the kitchen and the outdoor courtyard that the kitchen led out into.
The speed with which this house was snapped up (it came onto the market as part of that rush of properties last month when the estate agents opened again and was under offer within days) goes to show the continued demand for houses in London with this sort of aesthetic/layout in this price bracket.
6 May 2017
Hyndewood, Forest Hill, SE23
Mid-century extended end of terrace house
Architect: Norman Starrett
Year built: 1950s-1960s
Due to a happy change of circumstances, I’ve changed the focus of my longstanding property search from a modernist property for one to a modernist property for two.
I’ve always quite liked Forest Hill as an area – it’s commutable into the city, it has nice green spaces (including the Horniman Museum gardens with that fantastic view across to the city and Dawsons Heights), the amenities are decent with a nice mix of pointless artisan and essential shops and most importantly, it has a fair amount of nice mid century modern housing stock, including one of those Austin Vernon and partners blocks that I went to see last year and rows of less well known but still interesting-looking terraced houses.
This house was at the end of a Norman Starrett-designed terrace down a very quiet little close containing a cluster of mid century houses and flats. It looked enormous from the floorplan due to a ground floor extension on the side of the house and appeared to have retained a lot of original 1960s features, including a very stylised kitchen and a lot of wood panelling.
In person, the house was even perhaps bigger than I was expecting it to be. The amount of floor space on the ground floor alone was probably bigger than a lot of two bedroom flats in London that I’ve seen, containing two adjoining reception rooms (both with original parquet flooring), that very retro kitchen, a utility room and a downstairs bathroom. Patio doors led out onto a small paved garden.
Upstairs were three bedrooms (two double, one single) and a further bathroom (this one with a very period avocado suite) and another bedroom up a further flight of stairs at the top of the house.
The seller was an elderly lady who had lived in the flat for over thirty years and while she clearly hadn’t updated anything during that period, she had maintained everything pretty well, which meant that the house was a nicely preserved time capsule. With a small amount of cosmetic updating (repainting the walls, replacing the carpets upstairs and probably that avocado bathroom) and a bit of good mid century furniture, the house would have been absolutely beautiful.
The house was also quite keenly priced at £600k, a decision on the seller and agent’s part to get as many offers as possible (most likely over the asking price), allowing for the property to be sold as soon as possible. We didn’t end up putting in an offer as the timing wasn’t quite right (and we had a fair amount of competition from other buyers) but this house will certainly serve as a benchmark for the purposes of our property search going forward.
Updated 1 July 2020
Having prioritised doing up the house when we moved in, we pretty much left the already pretty ramshackle garden that we inherited from the previous owner to run wild for over a year (as my previous blog entries on the garden from April and June last year – see below – demonstrate).
We were finally forced into taking action when a large tree at the end of the garden fell down during a storm, crushing the row of tall bushes that previously divided our garden and the communal green behind it. While this did mean we no longer had any privacy from any neighbours using the communal green, we quite liked how the garden now felt a quite bit longer and brighter.
We factored this new absence of dividing line between our garden and the communal green into our plan: in the back, we would replace the dirt patch with turf (which wasn’t possible previously, given lack of sunlight), levelled with the communal green so that when looking out from the house, there would be the illusion of a continuous grassy lawn as far as you could see (or at least to the back of the communal green).
We would lay a new back patio (concrete slabs with gravel poured in between them) and the sloping dirt path running down the side of the house would be fitted with stepped sleepers, paving stones, gravel and new planting. We would re-lay the wonky paving stones out front and install a large box planter, to be planted with herbs, behind the fence next to the old shed (which was just too full of crap to even contemplate getting rid of). Finally, the dirt patch in front garden would be completely filled up with new plants and shrubs to frame the cherry blossom tree in the centre.
In a bit of very fortunate timing, we hired a team of landscape gardeners to carry out this plan at the end of February which meant that they had just finished work as lockdown began at the end of March.
On the whole, we were really pleased with the end result and it’s been really nice to witness everything blooming and flowering (lawn aside, which always seems to look a bit brown in places) over the past three months spent at home.
There are, of course, a couple of things we might have done differently with the benefit of hindsight. For instance, whilst the gravel/slab combo we used for the back patio would have been great in Palm Springs (the source of inspiration) where there is practically no wind and the only vegetation consists of cacti and palm trees, it has proved pretty unsuited to a windy English garden with the sorts of trees and plants that shed on a daily basis – I find myself constantly having to kick dislodged gravel back into place and picking debris out of the cracks like food from between teeth.
We also probably wouldn’t have given total control over to the landscape gardeners when it came to the planting: due to a lack of knowledge and confidence on our part, we just handed them a sum of money to purchase whatever plants they thought would look good and would have the best chance of survival in our garden. It just so happened that the landscape gardener had a thing for rhododendrons (which admittedly have done pretty well thus far, even under the canopy of a huge tree of heaven out front) and so we have ended up with… quite of a lot of them.
The same goes for the herbs: due to the landscape gardener’s selection, we seem to have a lot of mint (which we don’t really use and also seems to grow like a weed) and not much of anything else. This, however, may be also be down to the family of foxes which seems to have installed itself in our garden, though it’s entirely possible that they have been here all along, camouflaged in the overgrown mess that our garden used to be.
In terms of finishing touches, it would be nice to get some smaller pots and planters for the back patio to soften it up a bit. We also recently bought a Tolix-style metal circular table (aka a knock-off from Swivel UK) and some stools to accompany the loungers on the back patio just in case we have a socially distanced barbecue before the end of summer.
23 June 2019
Given that we have no appetite for a full-on landscaping project this year (we did call in a gardener to remove weeds and anything that was clearly dead/rotting but that was the extent of it), we decided instead to make a few additions to make the garden a little more inviting for when we have guests over this summer.
Inspired by this photo of the rooftop garden in the Berkeley Hotel in London that I saw in a magazine, we decided to get a pair of budget-friendly Applaro loungers and the matching side table from Ikea and cover them with sunshine yellow pads and cushions from online store Maison du Monde. We also bought a simple Dancook barbecue and hung up some solar-powered lanterns and some Ikea outdoor lighting.
This limited window dressing does not conceal the fact that the garden is still a bit of a ramshackle mess (I still want to re-landscape at some point, adding bit of grass and more planters/beds containing a variety of different plants and shrubs) but it’s going to have to do for now.
22 April 2019
Given that both my partner and I have lived in flats for all of our adult lives, neither of us have any experience of looking after a garden.
This meant that we were at a bit of a loss when it came to dealing with the quite mature front and back garden that came with our new house – we had no idea what to do with it or when so we just left it to its own devices (save for removing a rusty old washing line and getting the builders to straighten out the wonky wooden fence in the front garden) while we concentrated on doing up the house itself.
Six months and two season changes later, it feels like we should do something about it. All the dead leaves and mulch that accumulated in autumn and winter have formed a crispy brown dirt bed everywhere, interrupted by spiky-looking weeds which have started springing up at an alarming rate in the last few weeks.
The trees, plants and shrubs that aren’t weeds (which it was quite nice to witness sprouting out of the ground in unexpected places at the start of spring, especially the little tree in the front garden which unexpectedly turned out to be a cherry blossom which flowers in mid-March) could also do with some attention before they get even more overgrown and out of control than they already are.
We’ve called in a gardener to carry out this haircut in the next few weeks so I’ll update this entry if there is any discernible difference worth reporting on. In the longer term, it’d be nice to carry out some slightly more adventurous landscaping. The wonky paving stones leading up to and in front of the house could definitely do with being re-laid and while the ground is too uneven for a lawn in the back garden (and I don’t think I could face maintaining that every week), I like the idea of cultivating a few planters or beds like some of our more green-fingered neighbours.